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Environment & Climate Change

You can help monitor baby birds for science

Leslie Clapp
Courtesy NestWatch
Hey babies! Tree swallow chicks hanging out.

Spring means Michiganders breaking out the shorts when it's above 40 degrees, grocery store aisles full of marshmallow bunnies, and itty-bitty baby birds.

You can help keep an eye on those babies as part of the citizen science project NestWatch. It's a program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Cornell Lab has been monitoring nesting birds for 50 years, and more than 130 studies have relied on the data from NestWatch.

Robyn Bailey is the project leader for NestWatch. She says anyone can become certified as a nest-watcher through the project website (although kids should always be supervised by an adult).

"You want to be careful as you approach a nest, whether it's a nest box like a birdhouse, or an open cup nest like a robin or a blue jay, you want to be careful that as you're approaching the nest, you make a little bit of noise, whether you're just humming to yourself or knocking gently on the side of the nest box."

Credit Linda Bowers / John Smith/Courtesy NestWatch
Courtesy NestWatch
American Robin eggs

She says that gives the bird a chance to leave the nest. Bailey says it's important to avoid touching any eggs or nestlings.

"Once you've done a quick count of the eggs or chicks, then you want to leave by a different path. You don't want to leave a scent trail. A person just meandering through a park or a backyard is going to leave a scent trail, but what you don't want to do is leave a dead-end trail to a nest."

She says predators might follow your scent right to those baby birds.

Bailey says nest-watchers need to take a number of precautions. Here's an excerpt from the project's code of conduct page:

Generally you should AVOID visiting nests under the following conditions: Do not check in the early morning.Most birds lay their eggs in the morning so plan on visiting nests in the afternoon. Also, most adults will temporarily leave the nest when you are near, and eggs and young nestlings can become cold quickly if left alone in the morning. Avoid nests during the first few days of incubation.If necessary, observe nests from a distance and approach only when the female leaves the nest. Do not approach nests when young are close to fledging.When the young are disturbed during this stage, they may leave the nest prematurely. Young that fledge prematurely usually do not stay in the nest despite attempts to return them, and their survival rates away from or outside the nest are low. When young birds are fully feathered and very alert, only observe the nest from a distance. Avoid nests during bad weather.If it is cold, damp, or rainy, postpone checking nests until another day. Checking nests during this time can be very stressful for birds. Do not check nests at or after dusk, when females may be returning to the nest for the night. The exception to this would be owls, which typically leave the nest at dusk.